Financial woes test post house mettle

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When the Robert De Niro feature "Everybody's Fine" shipped out to shoot in Connecticut earlier this year, it did so to take advantage of the state's tax incentives. Long before Wall Street melted down, the Miramax production was looking to save money wherever possible. That's where New York-based post house Orbit Digital came in.

"We set up a complete dailies operation on location and other on-location services to support their post," says Orbit Digital senior vp sales Pete Conlin. The production shot with the Panavision Genesis, so Orbit (which is affiliated with PostWorks) created a mobile lab that enabled a colorist to color dailies and then screen them with a digital cinema projector.

"We're definitely saving them money," Conlin says. "We could create a dailies package price that was more effective -- 15% lower than in a facility -- on top of the 30% tax rebate savings they were getting (from the state). It's almost a half-priced dailies process, plus the DP could watch every day after shooting and talk to the colorist."

Technicolor Creative Services is another house that offers on-location dailies, with Creative Bridge, a mobile dailies service that brings along digital screening and color correction.

Such minor miracles are stock-in-trade for post houses, where over the years employees have become masters at making budget dollars stretch. And 2008 has proved a more challenging year than most -- the writers strike, fears of a SAG strike and the recent bank failures have tested their skills as never before.

In part, that's because post is used to getting the short end of the stick. Most post comes at the end of a long chain of creativity and requires money just as budgets are starting to dry up. But in these belt-tightening times, the usual cost-saving measures are not enough for feature productions anymore.

"There's always a trend to save money," explains Glenn Kennel, vp and general manager of the feature film group at LaserPacific Media Corp. "But given that we've gone through some periods of slow work, there's been added competitive pressures to get better deals."

In the Realm of the Digital


Film producers today often come into post thinking that new digital tools mean they can "fix it in post" for a fraction of the cost of old analog tools. But that can be overstated, says Larry Birstock, CEO of Post Logic Studios.

"The pressure for years now has been how we can do more with less," he says. "There's been a notion about the digital realm that it would naturally get less expensive, and that's not always the case."

The proliferation of digital cameras has also posed a challenge to postproduction facilities trying to keep costs down. Though producers may save money in processing and printing film, digital cameras create more costs for post facilities trying to accommodate new file formats and workflows.

"In some ways, it's a little more difficult and complicated," says HTV/Illuminate CEO Jim Hardy. "There are more people involved, such as the data wrangler, the input/output people, computer programrs, and you have to keep buying new software or developing your own."

Stefan Sonnenfeld, Ascent Media's senior vp in charge of feature film work, notes the challenges of handling the different formats of cameras from the Panavision Genesis and Thomson Viper to the Sony F23, ARRI D-21 and Red One: "We as a post house have to accept what's happening in the marketplace and accommodate everything," he says.

To that end, he adds, "we've been pretty aggressive in coming up with file-based services that enable the production to utilize those formats and workflow. We have become the experts on file conversions and end-to-end solutions for these producers."

Datalab in Santa Monica has created a patent-pending data-based workflow to accommodate director David Fincher's 2007 film "Zodiac" and upcoming "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" for Paramount.

"We've seen a change from the heavy iron days of post to the software days," says founder Angus Wall, who developed the system with Andreas Wacker. "The world we've entered into is more virtual, and there are many variables and many different solutions. But there are many possibilities for saving money in this brave new world. You're not burning through film; you're not going through a photochemical process. The elimination of the lab adds to our responsibility but not the expense."

Soup to Nuts

Another good way to streamline the post process is the tried-and-true concept of offering a complete package deal. FotoKem is just one house that can provide a combination of services, including processing, dailies, distribution of dailies elements, offline systems, cutting rooms, VFX, previews, screenings, and the finishing process (which includes conforming and digital intermediates).

"When a client is willing to do the whole process with you, we're able to put together a more efficient workflow so the cost becomes more competitive," says FotoKem senior vp Rand Gladden. "When we provide (a package), it can save 15%-20%."

Post facilities have also developed proprietary methods for helping producers stretch a dollar. Gladden suggests dailies in HDCAM SR, which offers full color information, and then conforming from the dailies prior to recording out to film.

"You're giving up a little bit of resolution, but from a color and workflow point of view, it's the same level of technology and talent," he says. "And you can save $50,000-$60,000."

For indie films that aren't yet sold, one option is to create an HD master from the DI, which is then used for exhibitions and sales. "Once your movie is sold, come back and finish the film -- out with the negatives and DCI-compliant masters," Gladden says. "It defers $100,000-$150,000 of work until the movie is sold."

LaserPacific offers a similar streamlined DI process, inDI, which also utilizes HDCAM SR tape as the telecine master in dailies and also as the format in which to conform and finish.

"Instead of rescanning the negative, you pull takes from dailies, assemble them, color correct and finish them, whether for film or video distribution," Kennel says.

Another LaserPacific service that translates to cost efficiencies is its aIM (Accurate Image) dailies, which use the Color Decision List to carry the color information from dailies through the DI. "This way, you're not starting over at each step of the process," Kennel explains. "It saves some of the setup time and allows you to get to the creative part sooner."

World Wide Web

Consolidation and globalization of the post industry itself is cost-saving for feature film clients. Ascent Media offers services connected by fiber in New York, London and L.A.

"Clients are able to be in three different places at once," says Ascent Media's Sonnenfeld, who reports he was in Los Angeles coloring a project while the film's DP was in London watching the coloring process live and in real time. "Working in two or three different cities at once is a massive undertaking that used to be incredibly expensive, but now we can do it. It cuts down on travel expenses for international projects, and the services are more affordable."

Post Logic studios, recently bought by Indian media conglomerate Prime Focus, now offers a variety of post and VFX services in Los Angeles, New York, London, Canada and India. Birstock reports that a single feature film's work can be parsed out to the various facilities based on talent, availability and cost.

In light of a world that's turning to globalization, it seems to be an inevitable step for the post industry. "For those of us with a global presence," Birstock says, "We'll be in an advantageous position because of the cost savings we can achieve by working in different locations."
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